I am inordinately held up in Manhattan’s unpredictable traffic even as Bisila Bokoko waits endlessly for me at the Les Ambassades patisserie in Harlem. She has promised to show me around the African-American neighborhood with its vibrant alfresco cafes, arty hotspots and cultural hubs.
She is about to finish her third cappuccino and a plate of Senegalese rice when I show up, hoping she hasn’t left. But despite the two-hour wait, she’s a picture of calm.
We soon walk the streets to Apollo Theater, the legendary Harlem performance hall, ending our May evening jaunt at Red Rooster, the restaurant run by Ethiopian celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, another famous African export. The place is packed for a week night and there are many regulars by the stylish smoke-filled bar who wave to Bokoko.
All along, we have been chatting about Africa, a continent she visits more than three times a year. Her kohl-lined eyes light up every time she mentions her umbilical cord connection to the land of her dreams.
Bisila Bokoko is many things at the same time – businesswoman, motivation speaker and TV personality – but she is also a wine entrepreneur, and very much like the boutique wines she sells – “wines with an African accent made in Spain”.
Born in the port city of Valencia in Spain to parents from Equatorial Guinea, Bokoko lives in New York – in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan – but straddles continents, sometimes doing as many as six flights a week. She calls herself “a cultural hybrid”.
“I live out of a suitcase, but you really live within yourself. The suitcase is irrelevant, I am happy and home wherever I am,” says Bokoko.
The secret, she says, is devoting the first four hours of the day to her body, mind and soul. Work often takes her to Valencia. Her wine business has been profitable and she recently invested in a 19th century building, “like a castle”, in Spain for her winery. Currently, she sells 12 different categories of wine and 40,000 bottles a year in Spain, China, Latin America and some parts of West Africa.
Besides her eponymous wines, she is also founder of the Bisila Bokoko African Literacy Project, bringing books and libraries to children in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. She is soon opening a library in Senegal, and South Africa is also on the cards for 2018.
“Most of the African stories are being lost. I was born in Spain by accident – my parents were there only because of the political situation in Equatorial Guinea. That is why I am so passionate about the libraries project. I was always experiencing Africa through books. Before I went to Africa with my body, I traveled with my mind. That’s why I want to gift that to the children there,” says the 43-year-old and mother of two.
The first time Bisila Bokoko stepped foot in Africa, was when she visited Ghana, the day she turned 35, as “a birthday gift” to herself. Her tryst with Africa was about to begin. It became her mission to change the image of Africa abroad.
She had moved to New York from Spain at the age of 24, whilst doing an internship for the government of Valencia in international trade. She went on to complete an MA in International Relations in New York, while at the same time helping companies in Valencia do business in the US.
As the Executive Director of the Spain-US Chamber Of Commerce for seven years, she worked closely with leading Spanish brands such as ZARA and Mango.
Bokoko’s lawyer-father still lives in Equatorial Guinea. Her greatest blessing, she says, are her brothers. One of them is an ex-banker living in Panama; she also has a brother who runs his own consultancy firm in China.
Bokoko travels the world for speaking engagements and also owns Bisila Bokoko Embassy Services International, a boutique consultancy firm in New York.
“My biggest fear was to be an entrepreneur. I was in a comfort zone, with a paycheck and an institution to fall back on. But now, I work for Bisila Bokoko, I am my own boss,” she says.